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Sweetbay officials say they met with St. Petersburg mayor about struggling Midtown store

Published Jan. 23, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — When Sweetbay Supermarket announced plans last week to close its Midtown store, Mayor Bill Foster said he was stunned and knew nothing about declining sales.

At a news conference Monday, Foster said he wished Sweetbay would have told him about problems plaguing the store in Tangerine Plaza.

Sweetbay officials say they did just that — at a meeting at City Hall on April 6, 2011.

A store president met Foster and a top staffer in Foster's office to find ways to draw more customers.

"We met to see how we can get more foot traffic into the store," said Sweetbay spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau. "The meeting was to talk about working together. That's why we met with him."

LeBeau said then-president Mike Vail also met with community groups and church leaders around the same time, adding: "It's sad to hear this isn't being reported correctly."

After being asked about the meeting by the Tampa Bay Times, Foster said he couldn't recall one and would check his old calendars.

A few hours later, Foster found the meeting on his calendar but said he couldn't remember specific details.

"I don't recall having any glimpse into the financial urgency of this store," Foster said. "Nobody on my staff knew about the dire straits of the Midtown store."

Foster said he had casual conversations with Vail at events for the Tampa Bay Partnership, but said the talks never centered on Midtown.

"In no way did anyone from Sweetbay indicate the fragility of this particular store," Foster said. "Nothing was ever shared."

That time period, Foster said, was just after the city buried three police officers killed in the line of duty. Foster said it is not possible for him to remember details from the thousands of meetings he holds each year.

Sweetbay announced last week that it will shutter 33 stores, including 22 in the Tampa Bay area. Officials would not disclose sales figures at the Midtown location, other than to say it was underperforming as were the others slated for closure.

Foster stressed that it is better to focus now on possible meetings Sweetbay executives could hold with the city as a result of Monday's news conference.

Elected leaders from Pinellas County, church officials and community groups held a news conference Monday to stress how vital the store was to Midtown.

The plea worked, Foster said.

Store officials from North Carolina called him Tuesday morning. He described the call as a "productive talk" and hopes to meet soon with executives.

The company hasn't reversed its decision to close the store, Foster said.

"The story of the Midtown Sweetbay is out there," Foster said. "I'm optimistic. Sweetbay and I are talking."

City officials say $1.4 million in public money was spent to build Tangerine Plaza, where Sweetbay opened in 2005.

Foster's critics have used the store's closure as proof that he doesn't have close enough ties to business leaders in Midtown.

"I think it's a shame for the mayor to hold a press conference to admit he doesn't know what was going on," said Darden Rice, president of the League of Women Voters of St. Petersburg,

Others blame the disconnect on his 2011 firing of Goliath Davis, who served as police chief, deputy mayor and senior administrator of community enrichment and was perceived as City Hall's unofficial liaison to the black community and business leaders.

The relationships disappeared with Davis, said council member Leslie Curran.

"Somebody should be in the position to know about the city's investments," she said. "(Sweetbay) didn't even bother to tell the mayor. The CEO of this city has to have relationships."

Foster scoffed at the accusations.

"That's like blaming the mayor of Twinkie town for the closure of the Twinkie plant," Foster said.

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

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